Authors: Claire Holiday
Left at the altar, Grace Russell moves west with high hopes of a new beginning as a mail order bride, only to discover upon arrival that her fiancé is dead. Her dreams are shattered, and with nowhere to go, her situation is hopeless—until widow Constance Abel comes to her aid.
Owen Miller is ecstatic when his widowed sister, Constance, finally attracts a suitor. If all goes well, he can return to Virginia and marry the sweetheart he was forced to leave behind. But when Constance invites Grace to stay, all his plans go awry. Not only is the beguiling girl's presence distracting to Owen, but she is captivating the attention of every single man in town—much to Owen's chagrin. On top of all that, his fiancée isn't returning his letters, his matchmaking sister has ideas of her own, and Constance's own relationship may be in jeopardy.
When Grace realizes she has fallen for Owen, she knows she must keep those feelings secret. Owen loves someone else, and she can't stand in the way of that. Should she stay at Constance's farm and risk heartbreak, or choose another suitor—and a marriage of convenience?
Mail Order Bride Journeys
by Claire Holiday
Copyright 2014 Claire Holiday
Published by Western Journeys Publishing
TABLE OF CONTENTS
September 18, 1896
The stiff wind swept up Grace’s skirts, causing goose bumps to form on her calves, as she stepped off the train in Lewistown, Montana. The small crowd that she had observed from the window seat of her car, had for the most part dispersed. The remaining faces were unrecognizable as the man in the photograph which she held in her hand.
She looked at the photo again, and examined the angular cheekbones and thick eyebrows of her betrothed, his most prominent features. Not a handsome face, yet the face of the man which promised to take care of her and to treat her with kindness and respect.
Grace scanned the last of the bystanders again. Satisfied that the man that she sought out was not among them, she scooped up her heavy bag, which she had placed on the solid, wooden deck under her feet, and proceeded toward the train depot eager to get out of the wind.
Montana weather could be unpredictable. Winters in Lewistown were long, dry, and very cold. Grace was no stranger to cold winters, having been raised in the northern part of Massachusetts. She actually preferred cooler weather, and after a particularly warm summer in that year in Massachusetts, she looked forward to the change in climate that Montana was sure to provide.
Each step of her heels on the polished wooden floor echoed throughout the building, announcing her presence to the few people that remained. The depot had only opened the previous year in the small town, primarily to serve the mining industry in the area. There were few routes that stopped there, causing brief periods of activity which quickly subsided. Grace walked toward a counter that separated the main lobby from what appeared to be an office of sorts, and rang the bell conveniently left there.
Promptly a man of smallish stature, wearing a bow tie and a broad grin approached from one of the offices. “Sorry ma’am. I was filing some paperwork in the back.”
“That is quite alright. I wasn’t waiting long.”
Ignoring her, the man picked up a schedule of some sort, and started tracing his finger down the list as if he were searching out a destination for her. “Where to?”
“Oh, actually I’ve just arrived here in Lewistown and I was to meet my fiancé here but he hasn’t arrived yet. I was curious if he might have left a message for me at the counter, Miss Grace Russell?”
“And what is the gentleman’s name?” the attendant asked.
“Mr. Maxwell Stevens.” As she spoke the name, she heard someone cough and shuffle uncomfortably in his seat.
“Sorry ma’am. Nobody has left any messages today. You are welcome to have a seat on one the benches and wait for him though. Or if you’d like, there is a place just up the street where you can get a bite to eat, if you are hungry.”
“I think I’d better wait here, but thank you. I’m sure Mr. Stevens will be here soon. I appreciate your help.”
Grace left the window and took a seat near the front door that would allow her a view of anyone approaching the depot. As she did, she noticed that the man that had been sitting near the counter earlier was now approaching her. “Excuse me ma’am. I don’t mean to pry, but I couldn’t help but hear that you are meeting Maxwell Stevens here today. Is that right?”
Grace smiled at the gentleman as he sat down across from her. “Yes, I am.” Grace answered, hopeful that this stranger had some news from her fiancé.
The man shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he answered her. “Ma’am—I don’t know how to tell you this so I’ll just get right to it. I’m afraid I have some terrible news for you.”
“Oh no! Is everything alright? Has Mr. Stevens taken ill?” Grace did not ask the question that had been on her mind ever since she first realized that Maxwell Stevens had not shown up. She tried not to even think of the words, but couldn’t help herself…
Did Mr. Steven’s have a change of heart?
She had nowhere to go if he did, and no money to support herself with. She could not let herself face that fear—not now.
“No ma’am. I’m afraid that it is much worse—if—we are talking about the same Maxwell Stevens.” The man hesitated, clearly trying to decide whether he should say more. “We must be though, I know of no other man by that name in these parts.”
“What is it? Please tell me?” Grace pleaded, beginning to panic.
“Er—um, Maxwell Stevens is dead. He was hung for cattle rustling about a week ago. I’m sorry ma’am.” The man answered, crumpling his hat nervously with his fingers. “I thought you should know when I heard you say that you are his fiancé.”
Grace felt a rush to her head, and saw blackness come over her. She heard some frantic shuffling around and felt hands grab her around the shoulders, supporting her, and realized that she had about fainted. She heard others approach, but was too disoriented to care who they were. She felt her body start to involuntarily shake, and the dam braking, she started crying uncontrollably.
“Help me get her outside to some fresh air.” She heard a female voice say. Then the strong hands of a man, presumably belonging to the man that had given her the news of her fiancé’s death, lifted her to her feet and led her outside.
“Is she alright?” Asked a voice coming from the open doorway to the depot. Grace recognized the voice as belonging to the attendant she had spoken to earlier.
The man that had helped her outside moved away and Grace felt the small, soft hand of a woman brush her hair out of her face. “She’ll be alright. I’ll take care of her.”
Grace regained her composure, and looking up saw that she had been left alone with a woman that she had not noticed before.
She must have been in the depot when I received the news.
Grace thought, the feeling of embarrassment descending upon her.
“I’m so sorry. You must be devastated.” The woman spoke first.
“I thought maybe he had changed his mind. It never occurred to me that he might be dead. Hung especially.” Grace paused, thinking about what she had heard.
Could my fiancé truly have been a cattle rustler?
“I did not realize who you were waiting for, or maybe I could have broken the news to you easier somehow.” The woman said.
“It’s okay.” Grace began, stifling a sob, determined not to lose her composure again. “I guess I am glad to have found out before I married him. A cattle rustler? Wow! I would never have thought.”
“Apparently yes. I didn’t know him personally, but I heard that he was caught in the act by a rancher’s posse and they hung him on the spot.” The woman said. “You didn’t know him well? I mean—never mind, I shouldn’t have asked.”
“I thought I knew him well enough. He and I have been corresponding over the summer and I accepted his proposal. We were to be married today.” Grace answered.
As Grace began to cry again, she felt sympathetic arms wrap around her shoulders. “Whatever am I going to do now? I have nowhere to go.”
“There is a small inn nearby that the miners like to use. I’m sure they would have room though. Do you want me to take you there?” The woman offered.
“No. Thank you.” Grace said, her stomach in knots from the anguish she was feeling. “I am nearly out of money. I’m sure that I couldn’t even afford to pay for one night. I don’t know what I am going to do.”
The woman grew silent, and Grace felt guilty for laying her problems in the woman’s lap. After a brief moment, the woman stood and saying nothing, gestured for Grace to wait for her. She walked away back into the depot and Grace assumed that she must have gone in to see if she could work something out with the attendant to send her back home. It would give Grace little comfort if the woman was successful, because she would be in the same situation back home as she was in Lewistown. There was nothing to return to.
Just as quickly as she had disappeared, the woman reappeared with Grace’s bag in hand. She had forgotten all about her bag after receiving the shocking news about her fiancé.
“It’s settled then. You are coming home with me.” The woman said, handing the bag to Grace.
“Oh no, I couldn’t!” Grace insisted, but knew that she didn’t have any better options. “I just wouldn’t feel right about taking advantage of your kindness like that.”
“Nonsense. I have an extra room, and it is just my brother and I. We would not be put out at all.” The woman lifted Grace to her feet by her elbow, and began to lead her toward a wagon parked near the train depot. “And I could use the help around the house anyway. Things have fallen into disarray because I had to help my brother with the harvest this month.”
Grace felt better knowing that her presence would benefit the lady, and graciously accepted the offer. It was a life saver, and she really didn’t have any other option besides.
Maybe I will be able to find a job and a place of my own soon
, she thought. Regardless, it would buy her time to figure things out.
“By the way, I am Mrs. Constance Abel.” The woman said, extending her hand in warm greetings.
“It’s my pleasure, Mrs. Abel. I am Miss Grace Russell.” Grace laughed. “At least we know how to address each other now!”
As Grace walked with Constance, she knew how fortunate she was to have run into her when she did. Only a short time earlier her situation had unexpectedly become hopeless, then this woman showed up and the hopeless situation no longer seemed insurmountable.
Maybe everything will work out after all.
She thought, as she took her seat in the wagon.
The ride out of town was a short one, and it seemed that the two women were quickly becoming friends. Even though the small farm was located only a short distance from the edge of town, Grace had enough time to learn that the Constance, her saving angel, was a young widow. Her husband had contracted an illness and died the year they had arrived in Montana, and she and her brother had worked hard to hold on to the farm and had done alright so far.
As the wagon rounded the curve and the homestead came into view, Constance couldn’t help be amazed at the beauty of the land. The home was set in a huge valley that was overshadowed by mountains in the distance, rising majestically toward the heavens, and providing her with a sense of security. This time of the year, the mountains were not snow-capped, but Grace expected that they probably wouldn’t remain that way for long. Beyond the harvested fields were scattered droves of pines, surrounded by scantly covered tundra that created a blanket across gently rolling foothills in stark contrast the harsh, foreboding rock that formed the mountains in the distance. There was something comforting in it all, and Grace felt good about where she was at that moment.
The house was smaller than she assumed it would be, but plenty large for two people. Constance had said that she had an extra room, so perhaps it was larger than it looked. The house was nicely maintained on the outside, though the porch could use some touch-up on the paint, as the old paint had become weathered in spots. There were several small outbuildings, and one larger barn, outside of which a cow and some chickens could be seen milling about. Constance pulled the wagon up near the barn, and set the brake.
“We’ll unhitch the horses, and put them in the paddock. Then we’ll grab your bag and I’ll show you the house. My brother will take care of everything else when he gets back. I’m sure he is still out in the south pasture stacking the hay for the winter.”
“It’s a very lovely place you have here. I just can’t get over the views!” Grace said truthfully.
“Well its home.” Constance grinned back as she set about unhitching the horses.
Constance was obviously comfortable handling the horses, Grace observed. It was something that Grace rarely saw back home. Usually the men would be responsible for anything to do with the livestock, but she supposed that living out west, women had to learn to be much more self-reliant.
She retrieved her bag from the back of the wagon as Constance walked the last horse to the paddock and threw some hay over the fence to them. Then the two women walked the short distance to the house.
“Have you ever been on a farm before, Miss Russell?” Constance asked.
“I’ve always been interested in farm life, ever since I was a little girl, but I’ve never actually been to one.” Grace answered, then quickly added with a wink, “But I’ve got a lot of cooking and cleaning experience.”
Constance laughed as they ascended the stairs toward the front door of the house. “Relax, this isn’t an interview for a job. I was just curious about how different staying here will be from where you grew up.”
“Well, there certainly is a lot more space here, and it is so quiet and peaceful. We never had pets growing up, so I have never been responsible for the care of an animal, but I love them and had always dreamed of having my own dog.”
Almost on cue, a bark sounded behind the woman. Turning to see what had made the sound Grace saw a small, brown dog with thick hair approaching with his head held high, and his tail wagging so enthusiastically that Grace was surprised that the dog didn’t lose its footing. It greeted Constance first, and then began to run back and forth between the two women. Grace stooped down and patted the dog.
“And that is Buster. I found him as a puppy wandering about in the woods soon after we arrived here and he kind of adopted us. Actually I should say that he adopted my brother.” Constance said, and then turned and opened the door, which had been left unlocked while she had been gone.